The Churches Confess
“Pope Puts the Church on Trial.” “Inquisition and Anti-Semitism —The Church Is Preparing Her Mea Culpa.”* “Mea Culpa for the Holocaust.” “Methodists Apologize to the Indians of the Far West.”
HAVE you read headlines like these? It seems that with increasing frequency, churches are accepting blame and are apologizing for what they have done over the centuries. The media are constantly highlighting new mea culpas by the pope.
When the Pope Asks Forgiveness
Between 1980 and 1996, John Paul II ‘recognized the Church’s historic faults or asked forgiveness’ at least 94 times, says Vatican commentator Luigi Accattoli in his book Quando il papa chiede perdono (When the Pope Asks Forgiveness). According to Accattoli, “in the Catholic Church, only the pope can rightly make a mea culpa.” And this he has done, referring to the most controversial pages of Catholic history—the Crusades, wars, support of dictatorships, division in the churches, anti-Semitism, the Inquisitions, the Mafia, and racism. In a memorandum sent in 1994 to the cardinals (which is considered by some to be the most important document of the pontificate), John Paul II proposed “a general and millennial confession of sins.”
Several prelates have followed the pope’s example. In December 1994 the Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported: “Many American bishops appeared on television and publicly asked forgiveness.” For what? For underestimating the problem of pedophile priests, to the detriment of many young victims. In January 1995 the newspaper La Repubblica reported on “a gesture unprecedented in the history of contemporary Catholicism”—the problem of Pope Pius XII’s silence in connection with the Holocaust was addressed. In January 1995 the same newspaper reported that the German episcopate asked forgiveness for the “many faults” of Roman Catholics who supported the crimes of the Nazis. Various Protestant churches have also subjected themselves to self-criticism.
The Bible encourages us to ask forgiveness when we are at fault, and many applaud the churches when they subject themselves to self-criticism. (James 5:16) But why are the churches doing this? How should it affect the way we view them?
Latin for “my own fault,” part of a Catholic prayer (the Confiteor or, “I confess”), during which the faithful repeat this expression.